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What you need to know to celebrate another holiday season amid an increase in COVID cases in El Paso
El Paso Times - 11/22/2021
The Cotes were already packing up their car for a trip to California to celebrate Thanksgiving.
The El Paso family had to scrap those plans when their son tested positive for COVID-19 on Nov. 16. Now, the family will kickoff the holiday season in self-quarantine.
Andrea Cote says she is grateful her son is not experiencing symptoms and other family members so far have avoided virus infections.
"We have a lot to be thankful about, especially if he doesn't develop any symptoms," she said. "And also because our baby tested negative."
With Thanksgiving only days away, El Paso County is again experiencing a significant increase in COVID-19 cases.
Local families, many with school-aged children, are having to suddenly give a second thought to their plans to host or attend large family holiday gatherings.
Although 68.8% of residents 5 years and older are fully vaccinated, El Paso leaders are worried that the current upward trend in COVID-19 cases could lead to the Borderland becoming a hotbed of infections.
The increase in cases is driven by three factors: unvaccinated residents, an increase in children testing positive at school and waning protection for those vaccinated more than six months ago.
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On Nov. 15, the city of El Paso released its weekly COVID-19 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that showed some troubling coronavirus numbers.
More than 2,000 new COVID-19 infections were reported throughout the week, more than triple the number of weekly cases two months prior. The brunt of the new cases continues to be among people who are unvaccinated, according to city health officials.
According to the New York Times interactive COVID-19 dashboard, on Nov. 16, an average of 312 cases per day were reported in El Paso County, a 57% increase from the county's average two weeks ago.
"Right now, El Paso County is at an extremely high risk for unvaccinated people," the dashboard read.
Equally troubling is an increase in infections among school children in some El Paso area schools. Parents late last week were being warned of possible classroom exposures as children prepared for the Thanksgiving holiday break.
El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego said "these numbers are extremely alarming."
"If we start hitting numbers like 700 or 800 (cases a day), our hospitals will be backed up," Samaniego said. "We don't have the personnel. There's been a huge turnover in health care workers, and some of them got very sick and didn't come back."
El Paso reported 600 new COVID-19 cases at mid-week. That one-day total is the highest recorded since January.
Across El Paso County, many hospitals are at full capacity for intensive care unit beds according to the El Paso Times' hospital capacity online database.
The Hospitals of Providence East Campus, the Hospitals of Providence Transmountain Campus, University Medical Center of El Paso, and Sierra Medical Center are reporting 100% capacity in their ICUs.
The Hospitals of Providence Memorial Campus and Kindred Hospital El Paso are in the mid to upper 80% capacity while El Paso Children's Hospital ICU is at 99.2% occupancy.
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More than one year ago, El Paso County was starting to make its way out of the worst of the pandemic. Cases were breaking daily records and peaked at more than 3,000 cases, but by Nov. 22, 2020, El Paso County began to flatten the curve.
There's still hope of avoiding another deadly surge in COVID-19 cases this holiday season. Health officials are urging residents to wear their masks indoors, wash their hands and practice social distancing, especially while traveling. They are encouraging others to get vaccinated if they hadn't already, get a booster shot, and test for COVID-19 if they feel symptomatic.
Samaniego also urged people to take care of their health, especially if they have underlying health conditions.
"(Let's) kill the dragons while they're babies, and right now the virus is the baby," Samaniego said. "If we get it quick, it won't spew fire and come at us. This is the moment to be able to do that."
COVID-19 cases rising among children, shutting down schools
The Cotes thought they had done everything right to protect their family.
Cote and her husband, who are both University of Texas at El Paso professors, worked from home for as long as they could — they scrubbed and disinfected every surface and item to come in the house, wore their masks and made sure their son washed his hands.
"We were a very strict lockdown family," Cote said, whose 7-year-old son attends Mesita Elementary School.
On Nov. 8 and 12, some parents of students within the same class at Mesita Elementary School were emailed notices that at least two students tested positive for COVID-19.
Cote's son tested positive for COVID-19 days later. He had received his first dose of the children's vaccine more than a week contracting the virus.
Cote said she was surprised at first — she thought it was a false positive.
By Nov. 15, the district reported 65 new cases among students overnight, according to data from the online EPISD COVID-19 tracker.
The EP Strong COVID-19 online dashboard reports more than 1,200 active coronavirus cases among children 12 years old and younger across the county, while more than 13,000 children are reported to have recovered.
As of Nov. 18, Mesita Elementary has reported 32 cases total among students and staff and has the most COVID-19 cases out of elementary schools in the El Paso Independent School District. More than 200 cases have been reported among the district's elementary schools.
On Oct. 4, the EPISD board of trustees voted to suspend its mask mandate during a special board meeting.
"We continue to promote health protocols: hand washing, social distancing when possible, and of course, students and families who choose to wear a face mask are more than welcome to do so in our classrooms, facilities and our offices," EPISD spokesperson Gustavo Reveles said during a phone interview Wednesday.
"We want them to stay safe. We want them to practice the best options for their families and for the rest of the community," he said.
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The rise in cases isn't isolated to the EPISD. The Canutillo Independent School District, on Nov. 12, had to close two schools because of an increase in coronavirus cases among students. There were 58 COVID-19 cases at Canutillo Middle and 27 cases at Jose Damian Elementary.
How to protect yourself and loved ones from COVID-19 during the holidays
Testing plays an important role in protecting yourself and others from spreading COVID-19.
Dr. Hector Ocaranza, the city-county health authority, said do not dismiss mild symptoms such as a runny nose or sore throat.
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"Many people dismiss some mild symptoms as not being COVID, and unfortunately, that can lead to infection of many other people. There's plenty of other respiratory viruses circulating at this moment, which also makes it very complex," Ocaranza said. "That's why testing is extremely important, but preventing getting infected by receiving the vaccine ahead of those holidays is the best protection that we can have."
Ocaranza said contact tracing investigations show a combination of traveling, large family gatherings and in-person shopping as contributors to the recent increase in COVID-19 cases.
If you're having a family gathering on Thanksgiving, here are a few tips from Ocaranza:
•The smaller the gathering, the better;
•Try to hold gatherings outside if weather permits;
•Get tested for COVID-19 before and after large gatherings and travelling;
•Get a flu shot and/or booster shot, if you're eligible;
"Last year, we were the hottest spot in the nation and there's a lot of things that we need to be thankful for, Ocaranza said. "Everybody who's going to be celebrating this Thanksgiving and holiday season, I want them to do it in a healthy and safe manner."
Dr. Anish Mehta, a medical director of care transformation at Eden Health, a direct-to-employer medical provider that provides service across the country, said it's also important to talk with family members if you feel uncomfortable about the gathering.
"I would say if you are with family members that you know are unvaccinated, tell them the truth," Mehta said. "Tell them what you're worried about; tell them that you would prefer for them to get tested, to be masked when you're spending time with them."
Mehta said there may have to be compromises made, "but there are things you can do to make sure that your family members can do to make sure that you're staying safe."
"Make sure that those (tests) are negative before you spend time around large groups of people," Mehta said. "I think that would be ideal, especially if you know there will be unvaccinated people there."
Mehta said the holidays can be the hardest for people feeling lonely. If there are family members who aren't joining festivities because they aren't comfortable being in another space with other people during a pandemic, give them a call.
"People are very sick of COVID," Mehta said. "Don't take that as a barrier to not reaching out to folks ... give them a call during dinner, Zoom them in. Try and keep them a part of it. Because, really, it's the loneliness that makes things worse for people."
COVID-19 data update
On Nov. 20, 401 new COVID-19 cases were reported, raising the total to 155,831. A death was reported for a total of 2,863. There were 5,518 active cases, with 147,276 people recovered. Officials said 256 people were hospitalized with COVID-19, including 88 in intensive care and 46 on ventilators.
Officials said there have been 5,446 breakthrough cases. Of those, 317 patients required hospitalization, including 79 who were placed in intensive care and 22 on ventilators. There have been 37 breakthrough deaths.
For more information on COVID-19, including testing, vaccination, data and prevention, visit epstrong.org.
Where to get a COVID-19 vaccine
The city of El Paso is encouraging people 5 years old and older to get COVID-19 vaccines and booster shots. To receive a vaccine or booster, an appointment is required at the following locations:
Convention center, 1 Civic Center Plaza.
•Noon to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.
•8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays.
City of El Paso Vaccine Mega Site, 301 George Perry Blvd.
•8 a.m. to noon and 1 to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays.
COVID-19 Clinics will be open from 8 a.m. to noon and 1 to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. They are at:
•220 S. Stanton St., at the corner of First Avenue and Stanton Street.
•9341 Alameda Ave.
•7380 Remcon Circle
•9566 Railroad Drive
A parent or guardian's consent will be needed for minors to be vaccinated. Parents can schedule an appointment or find more information about vaccination sites and locations at epcovidvaccine.com.
If you have questions about the city's COVID-19 vaccination sites or services, call 915-212-6843 or go to www.epcovidvaccine.com.
Where to get a COVID-19 test
El Paso health officials are reminding the public to get tested if they have COVID-19 symptoms.
Symptoms to look out for:
•Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
•Repeated shaking with chills
•New loss of taste or smell
El Pasoans can get a rapid-result test or a nasal swab PCR test.
El Paso Public Health Department Director Angela Mora said the type of test El Pasoans decide to get is a "personal choice," but PCR tests are the "golden standard."
A list of locations offering rapid COVID-19 tests can be found online at https://tinyurl.com/yca5se8r.
Testing is free, and no appointments are required. The following locations can test for COVID-19 and the flu:
•Drive-thru testing will be 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Sunday at the Don Haskins Recreation Center, 7400 High Ridge Drive;
•Drive-thru and walk-up testing will be 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Sunday at the UTEP Testing Site, 3333 N. Mesa St.;
•Drive-through testing will be 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Sunday at Sports Park Testing, 1780 N. Zaragoza Road.
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Anthony Jackson may be reached at ADJackson@elpasotimes.com and @TonyAnjackson on Twitter.
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